Thai Muslims leave aboard special flight for hajj
By AMBIKA AHUJA,Associated Press Writer AP - Saturday, November 29
BANGKOK, Thailand - A group of 250 Thai Muslims left Friday for the hajj pilgrimage on a special flight from southern Thailand after their original plan to fly out of the country's main international airport was disrupted by anti-government protesters.
Another group of 460 Thai Muslims remained stranded at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok as authorities negotiated to fly them out of U-Tapao air force base, about 140 kilometers (90 miles) from the capital.
They had arrived in Bangkok from the Muslim-majority southern provinces on Tuesday, hours before protesters took over Suvarnabhumi, forcing the country's main gateway to shut down.
Other pilgrims who were planning to arrive later in Bangkok stayed in the south, unsure whether they would be able to go on the hajj, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most Muslims who save up for years to go on the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
Their predicament was resolved when Thai Airways decided to operate a special flight that took off Friday from Hat Yai, 740 kilometers (460 miles) south of Bangkok, with 250 pilgrims aboard, a Thai Airways official said.
The pilgrims will go to Saudi Arabia via Oman, she said, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
Tour operators handling the 460 other Thai Muslims stuck in Suvarnabhumi airport said they will be taken by bus to U-Tapao air base, from where they could get connecting flights on Iran Air to Saudi Arabia.
However, Iran Air won't operate the flights until the Thai government guarantees that U-Tapao airport will not be overrun by protesters, said Sunanta Wuttisakun, an Iran Air representative.
She said the situation could be resolved within two days, which would be just in time for the pilgrims to make it before the deadline to start the hajj on Monday.
"Everyone is trying to help them," she said. "I believe the Thai government is also very concerned (about the pilgrims' welfare) and has to give them maximum security."
Thai Muslim leaders have warned that a failure to assist the pilgrims could damage relations between predominantly Buddhist Thailand and Saudi Arabia. It could also further damage the Thai government's credibility in the country's south where Islamic militants have waged an insurgency since 2004.
More than 3,300 people, mostly civilians, have been killed as a result of the violence. Attacks have generally taken the form of drive-by shootings and small-scale bombings intended to frighten Buddhist residents into leaving the predominantly Muslim area.
Muslims in the three southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat accuse the central government of discrimination, especially in jobs and education.
Associated Press writer Chris Blake contributed to this report.
Recommend this article
Average (0 votes)
Sign in to recommend this article »
Most Recommended Stories »
Related Articles: Asia Pacific
Demonstrators in Krygyzstan sentenced to prisonAP - 45 minutes ago
Thai government demotes national police chiefAP - 48 minutes ago
Chinese researcher executed on spying chargesAP - 1 hour 1 minute ago
Thai PM sacks police chief amid protestsAFP - 1 hour 2 minutes ago
S’poreans recount harrowing experience at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal HotelChannel NewsAsia - 1 hour 12 minutes ago
Most Popular – Asia Pacific
US clears Bank of America deal for Merrill Lynch
US president's mother 'doing very well' in hospital: Laura Bush
Love handles increase death risk: study
Obama vows 'help is on the way' for the economy
Michael Jackson strikes 'amicable' deal with Arab sheikh
View Complete List »